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Wilson heard their stories and urged each to reform. Then he ordered those who wouldn’t to appear in municipal court the next morning for sentencing. Only two chose to reform.

One woman told Wilson: “I would like to be good again, but the world won’t let me. It must keep me as I am. Please don’t say any more. God! Don’t I know? Haven’t I tried?”

The next morning, 136 prostitutes filled the municipal court. Some sat on rough pine benches; others stood around the rostrum and even behind Judge George Puterbaugh as he sentenced five at a time to vagrancy — a misdemeanor, under the Penal Code, and subject to a $100 fine. Puterbaugh added a proviso: if they’d leave town by 3:00 p.m., he’d suspend the fine.

The women’s behavior surprised deputy city attorney Shelly J. Higgins: “Even though I was charged with the duty of closing them out of business, I had to admit I witnessed nothing in their conduct or language that I could criticize or reproach them for.”

That afternoon, 16 women bought steerage on the steamship Governor for San Francisco. Most of the others made a mass exodus from the Stingaree to the Santa Fe Depot. The Pacific Transfer Company piled its wagon-bed trucks with valises and trunks, crammed with unfolded clothing, bric-a-brac, and small keepsakes (most had only enough personal belongings for one suitcase). Groups walked to the station “in their most fashionable duds.” Behind them, carrying the women’s suitcases, carpetbags, and birdcages, were bartenders and bouncers — many about to lose their jobs — along with, wrote the Union, “opium sellers, gamblers, runners, and panhandlers.”

The next day, the San Diego Sun closed the lid on the district: “Thus the Stingaree, called a necessary evil by some, a cancer and an eyesore by others, the Stingaree, which had survived many crusades and administrations, making it famous from ocean to ocean, has ceased to be.”

Prostitution in the Stingaree — where 100 stray cats now ran loose amid, as health inspectors discovered, filth, open sewers, and disease-infested shacks — had stopped. And its inhabitants moved on, many buying train tickets to Los Angeles.

But most bought round-trip tickets. They didn’t come back, knowing that Wilson would identify them and throw them in jail. Instead many sold — or just gave, some say — the return tickets to L.A.’s evicted ladies of the evening, who rode south, became “hostesses” in Mission Hills, or walked the streets beyond the Stingaree.

In 1913, police arrested 92 women for prostitution. In 1914, writes Clare V. McCanna, “that number more than doubled.”


  1. Harry McKee (quoted in the San Diego Union): “What a lot of tommyrot! [Closing the Stingaree] doesn’t solve any problem!”

  2. Mrs. Rae Copley Raum (San Diego Union): “We have said to the women of the redlight, ‘You aren’t fit to stay here, get out and be unfit to live some other place.’ We haven’t struck at the root of the problem.”

  3. Reverend E. R. Watson (San Diego Union): “I think the men who go down to those places are just as bad as the women, and I believe it is wrong to arrest the women and not arrest the men.”


Brandes, Ray, et al., “San Diego’s Chinatown and Stingaree District,” archaeological report, University of San Diego, 1986.

Castanian, Pliny, To Protect and Serve: A History of the San Diego Police Department and Its Chiefs, San Diego, 1993.

Higgins, Shelly J., This Fantastic City: San Diego, San Diego, 1956.

McCanna, Jr., Clare V., “Prostitutes, Progressives, and Police: The Viability of Vice in San Diego, 1900–1930,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 35, number 1, Winter 1989; “San Diego’s Stingaree,” True West, July, 1985.

MacMullen, Jerry, “The Day They Shut Down Old Stingaree,” San Diego Union, August 8, 1973.

McPhail, Elizabeth C., “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 20, number 2, Spring 1974.

Smith, Benjamin F., “Short on Poetry, Long on Action: a Brief Biography of J. Keno Wilson,” Brand Book Number Two, San Diego, 1971.

…articles from the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.

Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 1

Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 2

Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 3

Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 4

Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 5

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rickeysays Aug. 5, 2009 @ 3:38 p.m.

The “Purity League”: A group that said everyone else should live like them, according to their definitions of right and wrong. Todays equivalent: Every person who voted for prop 8.


Jeff Smith Aug. 6, 2009 @ 11:02 a.m.

Thanks RefriedG, muchisimas. You made my day.


David Dodd Aug. 6, 2009 @ 1:16 a.m.

Great series, Jeff Smith. This type of historical journaism is dead anywhere else, I salute your efforts.


danwhitehead1 Aug. 8, 2009 @ 2:09 p.m.

All of the Stingaree articles have been absolutely fascinating. Apparently the San Diego city government has always been just as smarmy, arrogant and self-righteous as I found it to be during the 30 years I lived and worked there. I guess that proves true the old saw: "The more things change, the more they stay the same". Also apparently, the so-called upper crust of the city was the same hypocritical, double-standard bunch during the days of the Stingaree as they were during my time there, proving the truth of another old saw: "The upper crust are nothing more than a bunch of crumbs held together by dough".


downtownphotoguy Aug. 24, 2009 @ 10:28 a.m.

I have enjoyed this series tremendously. Informative and entertaining at the same time. I have an office in 437 J Street, which is a lovely old building. I'm told it has been a bordello, a hotel, and an orphanage. When I climb the steep stairs from the entrance to the second floor, I wonder how many drunken sailors have been thrown down them in days gone by. If you know any stories about this building I'd love to know them!


HenrySloanIII Aug. 27, 2009 @ 9:29 p.m.

Intriguing, captivating series to say the least. It's been interesting to walk around down there and picture some of those long ago (foundational?) situations and capers. In sum, just an excellent read for six installments. The subject matter is fascinating and the author is a master craftsmen. What are the chances of Mr. Smith's historical writings on San Diego reaching print in book form? I'd wager there would be a market for it.


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